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  • Graham

The 737 MAX is back. Here's what you should know.

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

This post has been updated in January and February 2021 to include new information about Transport Canada's recertification of the MAX, as well as Air Canada's 737 MAX accommodation policies.

In December 2020, Boeing's 737 MAX will start flying passengers again, after two fatal crashes in 2018-2019, caused by faulty flight-control software, grounded all MAX aircraft worldwide for 18 months.

The safety and technical review that followed has been a huge controversy in the aviation industry, with 737 manufacturer Boeing, and the US Federal Aviation Administration insisting it's a fixable problem, while detractors argue that the MAX should never be allowed to fly passengers again.

I'm not here to convince you either way. I'll lay out the facts as best I can, explain why I'll personally be comfortable flying on the MAX right away, and help you identify your options if you don't feel the same.

photo credit: Boeing

So, why is the MAX allowed to fly again?

The two crashes that grounded the MAX were both related to new flight-control software called MCAS, that was supposed to give pilots information about how the aircraft was handling. In both cases, the software misinterpreted flight conditions, and tried to 'assist' the pilots in solving a problem that didn't exist. At the time, many other pilots reported encountering the same error, and overcoming it by simply disabling that piece of software; the problem was, Boeing's training materials for the MAX never covered this flaw or how to overcome it, and the pilots of the two downed aircraft didn't know a solution existed.

This represents a massive failure by Boeing's software AND training teams, and by government regulators worldwide who didn't catch the problem sooner.

Since then, Boeing says it's done a thorough investigation, found the cause of this and related problems, and made the necessary software changes to prevent anything like it from happening ever again. The FAA says it's watched every step of Boeing's investigation and repairs, and the head of the FAA, who's an experienced 737 captain, piloted a test flight himself to show confidence in the fix.

This week, the FAA announced that following six more weeks of additional system checks and pilot training, the MAX will be cleared to return to service in late December, with the first passenger flight likely operated by American Airlines on December 29th, and other operators phasing in service throughout 2021.

Government agencies in Canada, Europe and the rest of the world are conducting their own investigations, but most say they're ready to certify the MAX to return to service in the next few months. Hours after the FAA announcement, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau made a statement that Canadian regulations will include additional new pilot training and flight-deck procedures beyond those required by the American FAA, but the MAX is expected to be cleared in Canada in the near future.

So, is it actually safe?

I'm a writer, not a pilot or an aircraft engineer. I can give all the opinions I like, ultimately the only way we'll know for sure if Boeing's fixes worked is if we get to five or ten years from now and there haven't been any problems.

...but this is now the single most closely inspected aircraft ever made.

Thousands of experts have been poring over every detail of this aircraft for over a year, with specific instructions to look for any possible problem they can find. Boeing have announced that they're opening a 24-hour operations center dedicated solely to monitoring live, up-to-the-minute data from MAX aircraft worldwide.

In a solid vote of confidence, long-time Boeing customer Alaska Airlines responded to this news by signing a contract to add 13 new 737 MAX aircraft to its fleet, in addition to the 32 they already had on order. Alaska expects to begin flying the 737-MAX 9 in March of 2021. In the same vein, after the MAX was recertified, Ryanair signed a deal to buy 75 more MAXes, which suggests that they've received enough information to make them feel comfortable literally betting their survival on the fix.

If that sounds like spin, and you prefer to take a more cynical approach to this, look at it this way: Boeing are now fully aware that they don't get any more strikes on this one.

If another MAX crashes due to a software problem, Boeing is probably finished. No airline on Earth will ever buy another MAX, and Boeing will have billion-dollar lawsuits for decades, either of which might well be fatal to a company whose financial survival depends on the MAX working as intended.

I confess that this last part is what will make me feel comfortable flying on the MAX again right now.

Enough of the people responsible have put themselves onto test flights, enough scrutiny has been given to this aircraft by foreign regulators who don't care whether it ever flies again, and the investigation has run long enough and done so much financial damage that I'm no longer worried that anyone was allowed to rush the process to try and save money.

That's just me, and I totally understand that other people are going to feel very differently. I'm not trying to change your mind, just to explain how I reached my own conclusion.

So, if you're not comfortable on a MAX - or you just won't be until it's been safely back in service for a few thousand flights - let's look at how to identify where and when you'll encounter one.

Which airlines operate the 737-MAX? How do I tell if my flight is on a MAX?

The MAX is operated by over 70 airlines worldwide. In North America, these include:

- Aeromexico

- Air Canada

- Alaska Airlines

- American Airlines

- Southwest

- Sunwing

- United

- Westjet

The official designation is the '737 MAX 8' (or 'MAX 7/9/10' depending on model), you'll also often see it listed as '7M8' (or 7M9 etc.). Some airlines like UK-based budget carrier RyanAir have simply re-labeled the aircraft as the '737-8200', while others are referring to it as the '737-800'. This last bit gets flat-out misleading, since there has been a 737-800 model in service with dozens of airlines since long before the MAX took its first test flight, and airlines like Westjet and Southwest operate both the 737-800 and the 737-MAX8.

One airline I believe deserves solid credit in this department is Westjet. Not only have they clearly labeled the 737-MAX on their 2021 flight schedules, but while their search engine simply lists the name of older aircraft like the 737-700, any mention of the MAX links directly to a page on Westjet's website dedicated to explaining past and current issues with the MAX, as well as Westjet's maintenance plans and their process for returning the MAX into service.

Pretty solid work, for a situation that's going to be every bit as much about customer confidence as it is about aircraft engineering. Any other airline would do well to follow Westjet's lead on this.

Air Canada haven't done quite that well, but they're still being reasonably proactive, sending an email out to customers booked on the MAX, usually over a week before departure, clearly identifying the aircraft and offering a flexible rebooking policy.

I'm booked on a flight operated by a MAX. What are my options?

This one's going to evolve over time, as each airline has to evaluate what kind of flexibility it's willing - or able - to offer its customers.

For example, American Airlines has already announced a broad rebooking policy, stating "if a customer doesn't want to fly on the 737 MAX, they won't have to". They go on to state that "customers will be able to easily identify whether they are traveling on one even if schedules change. If a customer prefers to not fly on this aircraft, we’ll provide flexibility to ensure they can be easily re-accommodated."

This is fairly easy for an airline like American, or Air Canada, for whom the 737 MAX is just one aircraft in a fleet made up of many different aircraft types. Things get a little more difficult for airlines like Southwest or Ryanair, whose fleets are made up of hundreds of Boeing 737 aircraft - most of which aren't MAXes - who can only offer to move you from a '737 MAX 800' to a '737-800', and hope that passengers are able and ready to accept that this actually does address their concern.

While airlines are generally willing to accommodate passengers on this, it's worth noting that there are some cases where the MAX is all there is - for example, it looks like all of Air Canada's flights between Vancouver and Honolulu will be on MAX aircraft throughout most of 2021, so re-accommodating uncomfortable passengers may be difficult if there's nothing else to offer.

Airline rebooking policies, for passengers not comfortable flying on a 737 MAX:

Each airline is going to create its own policy and communications strategy on this, and I'll do my best to update and link those items here as they emerge. In the meanwhile, keep an eye out for terms like 'goodwill policy', and keep an eye on the top banner of each airline's website, as this is generally how that kind of update is published.

- Air Canada [ link ]

- Alaska Airlines [ link ]

- American Airlines [ link ]

- Southwest Airlines [ link ]

- United Airlines [ link ]

- Westjet [ link ]

It's also important to remember that in the middle of COVID world, airlines are making their best guesses at when each route will return to service. For example, Air Canada is currently selling summer-2021 tickets on their relatively new route from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to London UK - operated on a MAX - but if that aircraft isn't yet back in service, or travel simply hasn't picked back up enough, Air Canada is already prepared to rebook those passengers onto wide-body aircraft flying from Montreal or Toronto.

I hope this helps! Safe travels!

- G


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